School Lunch

7 Shelf-Stable School Lunches Kids'll Actually Eat

No refrigerator or ice pack necessary!

September 12, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

Welcome to Kids & the Kitchen, our new landing pad for parents who love to cook. Head this way for kid-friendly recipes, helpful tips, and heartwarming stories galore—all from real-life parents and their little ones.


A very specific sort of terror washes over parents when they realize their kid is departing for school momentarily...and has no lunch. What if said lunch also needs to stay fresh from drop-off until chow time—around four hours? What if frozen cooler packs are a no-go? Cue blind panic.

Take a deep breath, as Daniel Tiger would say: A cache of shelf-stable ingredients can conjure satisfying school lunches that don’t require refrigeration. (Note: The USDA says that technically you should “avoid leaving cut, peeled and cooked fruit and vegetables at room temperature for more than two hours.” So you could of course consider investing in a lunch box that includes an ice pack…but we’ll be over here with our hours-old carrot sticks.

These kid-friendly lunch ideas are so good, you’ll want to make an extra helping for yourself.


1. Soba Salad

Tots love noodles. Precooked Japanese soba noodles, which will last for months in a cool, dark place, have a pleasantly chewy texture and subtly nutty flavor. Trot them out for salads splashed with soy and dotted with fava beans or draped in a rich tahini and sesame oil dressing. The buckwheat noodles are also an excellent vehicle for vegetables like raw cucumbers and carrots, although you should skip cooked beets, which won’t last more than two hours out of the fridge. If your crew can handle heat, consider soba tossed with peanut sauce and chile paste.

2. Onigiri

Why reinvent the wheel? Onigiri, a popular Japanese snack food of balled rice, may well have been the original packed lunch, favored by samurai before battle. Roll onigiri in toppings like sesame seeds or umami-rich furikake, or pan-fry it to get crispy edges for a take on yaki onigiri. You can also stuff them with all manner of goodies, though we dig those that can last a few hours at room temp, such as purple cabbage and even pitted Manzanilla olives. To pack some protein, you can try tofu or tempeh, of course, but you also may want to call on another shelf-stable staple, wispy pork floss, which lands a salty-sweet punch and lasts indefinitely in the pantry.

3. Chickpea Salad

Canned chickpeas forever. We dig them sautéed in garlic and oil, tossed with roasted cubes of zucchini and sweet potato, and hit with a lemony tahini dressing for a warm side that’s excellent even at room temperature. They’re also great in a spiced salad of Israeli couscous, shredded carrots, sliced almonds, and tangy feta. (Yep, cheese can hang out sans refrigeration for four hours and still be A-OK.) For something that’s the same but different, add toast on the side.

4. Savory Oatmeal

Psych your kids out! If they like oatmeal for breakfast, swerve it into lunch territory with savory ingredient combos like portobello mushrooms with spinach and Parmesan, or pesto with cheddar and avocado. (Just try, and see if they’ll bite.) If you’re short on time, opt for rolled oats over steel-cut varieties. They’ve been steamed and smashed, and therefore cook faster—in 10 minutes or less, compared to steel-cut oats’ 20 to 25 minutes.

5. Pasta Salad

What do you do when your kid’s daycare or school doesn’t refrigerate lunches? Get creative. The big winner: pesto pasta. Cherry tomatoes make it a meal. Whether you’re using bowties, fusilli, macaroni shells, or whatever their favorite shape is, pasta salads have massive lunchtime potential. Toss them with sautéed veggies, capers, nuts, herbs, and mozzarella, a no-cook tomato sauce, or even tempeh bacon.

6. Next-level PB&J

Give the humble lunchbox standard a savory makeover: Swap out white bread out for eggier, richer challah. Sprinkle slices with curry powder before slathering with peanut butter, perky orange marmalade, and—if your kid can handle it—a squirt of sriracha. Then, add some fresh basil for an herbaceous brightness. Need something a little tamer? Trade plain old grape jelly for sour cherry and lime jam and regular peanut butter for almond butter sprinkled with sea salt. Once assembled, sizzle the whole thing in butter as if it were a grilled cheese. Va-va-voom.

7. Tuna Salad on Crackers

We know what you’re thinking: “Tuna salad, really?” Yes, really. Look, not all tuna salads are created equal, and we’re not talking about the dreary mayo varieties of the 1970s and 80s. Consider lighter, French-style tuna salad—the kind found on pan bagnat—tossed with sliced Niçoise olives, red bell pepper, parsley, and chopped artichoke hearts. If you have a baguette on hand, use it, but crackers from the pantry will also do nicely. Look for tuna tins with a certified seal from The Marine Stewardship Council, which highlights well-managed fisheries. (And do watch your kids' total tuna intake, for health reasons!)

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“We keep emergency lunch protein on hand in the pantry - most often, low-sodium beef jerky and/or canned beans tossed with salt, pepper, and garlic powder - for those days when we realize we have no protein for our 5 year old’s lunches. Maybe one day she will ask for chickpea salad…”
— Carter M.
Comment

Armed with these standbys, prepping kiddo lunches should be a whole lot easier and breezier from here on out.

What are your favorite shelf-stable lunches? Give us some inspo in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Emily
    Emily
  • Nancy
    Nancy
  • kristin
    kristin
  • Carter Morrison
    Carter Morrison
  • np
    np
Writer, editor, eater

9 Comments

Emily October 2, 2021
Went to school in the day when you brown bagged your lunch and left in locker til lunch. We would have tuna sandwiches with malt vinegar no less and never refrigerated. Thinking about this now, how did anyone have lunch with me given how this must have smelled? LOL wonder how we never got sick from warm tuna. Makes me chuckle when I see all the thermal lunch bags and ice packs for today’s lunch gear.
 
Nancy October 1, 2021
Maybe post again in a seb-section here (some or all of) Amanda Hesser's posts from early days on the site her articles and photos about packing school lunches for her kids.
Lots of knowledge and ideas there which a whole new cohort of parents may not have seen.
 
Nancy October 1, 2021
And/or Merrill Stubbs columns on cooking with or for her young daughter.
Same argument...valuable knowledge for parents who may not have seen these articles about 5-10 years ago.
 
Nancy October 1, 2021
Should read: sub-section
 
kristin September 20, 2021
Curious if there are substitutes for all the sesame in these recipes? My kid would enjoy, but any nut free facility (aka all) is usually also sesame free, so these wouldn’t work.
 
Nancy October 1, 2021
Probably not exactly in terms of texture or nutrition.
But look for and use varies kinds of dried protein (plant and/or animal) and chop or mix in as appropriate.
 
Carter M. September 20, 2021
We keep emergency lunch protein on hand in the pantry - most often, low-sodium beef jerky and/or canned beans tossed with salt, pepper, and garlic powder - for those days when we realize we have no protein for our 5 year old’s lunches. Maybe one day she will ask for chickpea salad…
 
np September 17, 2021
Pesto is actually a no-go since many (most?) childcare settings have a no-nuts policy.
 
Becky F. September 20, 2021
pumpkin seeds are a great substitution!